Some of my favorite movies and books include time travel. From HG Wells’ “The Time Machine” to 1980s favorite “Back to the Future,” time travel transports our heroes to an unknown setting where they face adventure and confusion. I’ve never traveled through time, other than the forward march of day-to-day life. Through the lens of novels, however, I’ve experienced history so vividly that I wouldn’t trade it for a flux capacitor.
I’ve never been to Russia–not in my lifetime and certainly not in the mid-1800s. But I have read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, two great Russian authors who published their most well-known works in the 1860s. When I think of their books, I have clear memories of the people, their clothes, the haziness of the sun against a distant field, and the blood spattered on a soldier’s weapon. England in the 19th century was incredibly different from the United States today. But after reading Charles Dickens’ works, it sometimes feels as though I can close my eyes and breathe in the stench of a London back alley or the stale perfume of a dilapidated hall.
Books are often lauded for escapism, for educational value, for their ability to transport. Aside from known benefits, books written contemporary to their publication can give us insight beyond the authors’ intentions. They include particulars not intended as pertinent or era-specific, for who can predict what trends and conveniences will still be around in a few hundred years. As readers, we get to absorb it all, learning the sights, sounds and smells of a time we’ve never experienced.
Experiencing history through novels can bring to life the minutest of details and enliven a setting that’s long since disappeared. So until time travel becomes a reality, I’ll be nose deep in an old book.